Submitted by George Curry, Guest Columnist
When then-National Newspaper Publishers Association Chairman Danny Bakewell Sr. asked me to emcee the Black Press Week luncheon at the National Press Club in 2011, I had no idea that I would be witnessing history. At the urging of Wilmington Journal Publisher Mary Alice Thatch, the NNPA decided to launch a national campaign to win pardons for the Wilmington 10, a group of activists who were falsely convicted and sentenced to a combined total of 282 years.
Everyone knew it would be an uphill battle, but it was a battle the NNPA was willing to wage. It established The Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project with a goal “to generate national and worldwide support for the petition, to the state of North Carolina, and specifically the governor, to grant individual pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten.”
NNPA publishers saw a video about the Wilmington Ten at the luncheon and its leader, Benjamin Chavis Jr., was interviewed by me and the publishers. When I asked Ben, a longtime friend, about his lowest point in prison, he tried to steer me away from the question by saying he preferred to focus on the future, not the past.
For Chavis, the trouble began after the all-Black high school was closed as part of the court-ordered desegregation of New Hanover County, N.C. schools. The Black students were forced to attend the previously all-White high school, where they were harassed. In February 1971, the United Church of Christ dispatched Chavis, a native of Oxford, N.C., to help organize a school boycott. During that period of unrest, someone firebombed Mike’s Grocery, a White-owned business located a block away from Gregory Congregational Church, where Chavis had set up headquarters.
When fire fighters and police officers arrived, they were attacked by snipers. Chavis and nine others were charged and convicted of arson and conspiracy in connection with the incident. Most of the defendants received a 29-year sentence, with Ann Shepard, the White woman from Auburn, N.Y., receiving the lightest sentence of 15 years and Chavis, then only 24 years old, getting 34 years, the longest sentence.
In 1980, a federal appeals court overturned the convictions of the Wilmington Ten and directly contradicted at least 15 of his allegations. After taking up the cause of the Wilmington Ten, NNPA newspapers gave prominent display to stories written about the case by Cash Michaels, editor of the Wilmington Journal, and distributed to member papers by the NNPA News Service.
Through talent and dogged persistence, neither Cash nor his publisher, Mary Alice Thatch, would let the campaign for pardons stall. Without Michaels’ exceptional reporting and the national exposure, many of the facts about the Wilmington Ten injustice would still remain unknown – and Gov. Perdue would not have pardoned the civil rights activists.
This was the Black Press at its best.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) Reach him at www.georgecurry.com.